“Your honor, I admit to the shooting of the president, but not the killing.”
–Charles Julius Guiteau–
One two three four five six seven
All good children go to Heaven
All bad children go below
To keep company with Guiteau
-19th century children’s rhyme-
So much has been written about the man who shot President James A. Garfield that I will refer you to these sites if you wish to refresh your memory about the historical facts of the assassination—whether by the bullet of Charles Julius Guiteau or at the septic, probing hands of the medical men. My theme today is not the assassination of the President or the trial or execution of the assassin, but the macabre afterlife of Charles Guiteau’s head.
By the 1880s, public hangings were falling out of favor; gibbeting had been outlawed in England 50 years previously, and few western nations still exposed the heads of executed criminals in public. It was deemed uncivilized, something practiced by medieval despots and jungle savages. Or possibly former employees of the Army Medical Museum….
When Guiteau went to the gallows (and to Hell, by the assessment of religious observers) on Sunday, 4 June 30, 1882, after reading a lengthy piece of his own doggerel, his body was immediately autopsied by physicians from the Army Medical Museum. Investigators hoped to find some physical clue to criminality or insanity, but all they found was an enlarged spleen. The spleen and bits of Guiteau’s brain were kept for the museum’s collection. His body was then turned over to the “bone-boilers” with the idea of putting the skeleton on exhibit.
Here is one account, somewhat truncated, of what occurred on the day of Guiteau’s execution, written a decade after the event:
Some Unwritten History About President Garfield’s Assassin.
Washington, March. 20. Dr. Tilden, former chemist at the National Medical Museum, told a reporter some unwritten history about Guiteau, President Garfield’s assassin. He said the assassin went to the scaffold in a semi-drunken condition. “That,” added the doctor, “was a necessity. You are aware that when the squad of soldiers entered the jail rotunda, a short while before the execution, and came to order arms with a loud bang, Guiteau fell over in a dead faint. His nervous system was completely shattered, and the physicians feared they would be unable to get him to the scaffold. A consultation was held and it was decided to give him a dose of brandy. This was done—and he got a big dose, too. Not being used to drinking, the dose went to this head, and his ‘Oh, Lordy,’ song on the scaffold was, in my estimation, a drunken effusion.”
Dr. Tilden also described how the body of Guiteau was removed from the jail to the medical museum, then located on Tenth street. He said the body was never buried, but after being placed in the coffin was taken down into the jail cellar, where it remained until after midnight. Soon after that hour a government ambulance drove up to the rear of the building, and the remains were quietly placed therein and quickly driven down town. They were taken into the museum through the alley which runs in from F street. Once in the building, all that remained of Charles J. Guiteau was taken into the boiler room, and placed in an immense boiler, where he was allowed to “boil and bubble” until all the flesh had fallen from his bones. The latter were then picked out and bleached, and some day they will form a mighty interesting exhibit in the medical museum. State [Columbia, SC] 21 March 1892: p. 1
This may or may not be accurate since another very detailed—almost blow-by-blow—account of unearthing the body from its grave within the prison was printed in the Washington Star and quoted in various papers such as the Cincinnati Enquirer of 30 Oct 1882.
It also does not mention the autopsy, performed by Drs. Daniel S. Lamb, J.F. Hartigan and Z.T. Sowers. Dr. Lamb, who had also performed the autopsy on President Garfield, created a great deal of ill-will when he prepared Guiteau’s autopsy report and sent it off to be published in a medical paper in Philadelphia without consulting his colleagues, who rightly complained that the conclusions of just one man did not constitute a valid post-mortem report. Without addressing the controversy, Dr. Lamb briefly commented on the Guiteau case in his history of the Army Medical Museum:
The year 1881 is memorable for the assassination of President Garfield. Taking place, as it did, in this city, explains the fact that Surgeon General J. K. Barnes, Dr. Woodward and, finally, myself were brought into the case…in June, 1882, the execution of the assassin Guiteau secured to the Museum his enlarged spleen and his skeleton; his brain was parceled out among many alienists; what little is left I still have. For a long time I had also a small porcelain plate showing a deposit of arsenic, from the test made by Dr. W. C. Tilden, at one time in the chemical laboratory of the Surgeon General’s Office. The arsenic had been placed on a bouquet of flowers sent to Guiteau on the eve of his execution [by his sister who hoped to help him cheat the hangman.]… I might add that Guiteau’s body was macerated by another attaché of the Museum, Ernest Schafhirt, who made a special preparation of the face, which I have been told was afterwards placed in an anatomical museum in New York City. Washington Medical Annals, Volume 15, 1916
Remember that name: Ernest Schafhirt… In 1887 stories began to circulate that the “head” of Charles Guiteau had been removed and preserved. Here is an account that is not for the squeamish:
HOW A GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL PRESERVED IT FOR PRIVATE SPECULATION
[FROM OUR REGULAR CORRESPONDENT.]
Washington, June 20, 1887. The announcement that the head of Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, is in the possession of a New York physician causes little surprise here, for it has been known by many in this city that when the flesh was removed from the skull in the process of articulating the skeleton, the United States anatomist, Dr. Schafhirt, preserved the same. He was careful to retain in the flesh in all their naturalness the features of the assassin. To effect this end he denuded the skull with as little cutting as possible, sewed the parts together with stitches almost invisible and stuffed the subject with materials that supplied to perfection the place of the missing bone frame.
When that branch of his work was completed he placed in the head in a bath of alcohol in a white glass jar about eight inches in diameter by twelve inches in length, which was hermetically sealed. Enough of the flesh was left to show the mark of the rope that strangled the assassin. For many months the doctors had on exhibition for the gratification of curious friends the ghastly spectacle, and it was the general remark of those who saw his head in Dr. Schafhirt’s private operating room, in the Medical Museum, that the head swimming in the jar of alcohol looked as lifelike as the day the noose launched Guiteau into eternity.
There is no question about the officials of the National Medical Museum being aware what Schafhirt had done in this matter and of his having used government materials and time in carrying out his object. A majority of the clerks and officers of that branch of the Surgeon General’s office were interested spectators of the Doctor’s work while it was being completed. New York Herald 21 June 1887: p. 3
As soon as this item was published, there was controversy over whether the macabre curio was the genuine article. When I originally read that Guiteau’s complete skeleton was in the Army Medical Museum I wondered how Guiteau’s “embalmed head” could also have been on display in a dime museum. Alas, for conspiracy fanciers, the confusion arose simply over linguistic inaccuracy—using “head” when “deboned face” was more accurate.
IS IT GUITEAU’S HEAD?
Army Medical Museum Authorities Not Sure That They Possess the Real Body.
Good Grounds for Belief That a Showman Has Secured the Valuable Curiosity.
Special Dispatch to the Leader.
Washington, June 21. The authorities of the Army Medical Museum are not so sure after all but the attraction advertised by a New York showman is the real head of Guiteau, the assassin. Such a thing is possible, though at first the doctors about the museum were inclined to scout the idea. When the body of Guiteau was turned over to the institution after the hanging, it was placed in charge of Dr. E.F. Schafhirt, the anatomist of the museum, whose business it was to remove the flesh from the bones and mount the skeleton, or at least prepare it for mounting when the same should be deemed advisable. He was present at the hanging, and when other surgeons were making the post-mortem examination, he is said to have injected into the fleshy parts of the head an embalming fluid and afterwards to have carefully separated the flesh from the bones and preserve the same in alcohol. Afterward it was filled out so skillfully as to impart the appearance of having within the real skull bones. A well-known citizen declares to a Star reporter that he actually saw the head as thus prepared, being given the privilege by Dr. Schafhirt himself. Says he: “It was Guiteau’s face, with the scraggly beard, scar on the scalp, and everything as natural as life. It remained in Dr. Schafhirt’s private office for at least eight months, and I frequently saw it, as did a number of other people. The clothes worn by the assassin were also preserved in a chest in the same room. When I recall the remark that I heard Dr. Schafhirt make about the face I have no doubt of the authenticity of the story. I remember he said, in effect, that a government position is not always a certainty, and that the time would come when he could turn those things to account.”
Dr. Lamb, who performed the post mortem examination of the assassin’s body, says he has no reason to doubt the truth of the story that the New York showman has the fleshy parts of Guiteau’s head and face. “I do not know what became of those parts. Nor were any questions asked as far as I know, but when Schafhirt was given the body for articulation he could readily have removed all the bones, including the skull, and stuffed the flesh in such a way that it could be placed on exhibition. It is a simple operation and is frequently done at the Smithsonian and other places. While I do not say that this is positively Guiteau’s head, I again say that I see no reason to doubt it, and I think it is highly probable. After being put in alcohol all change would stop. The short, croppy hair and head which Guiteau had and which is said to be on this head would remain intact. There would be some change in the color of the skin, which would whiten out. But that could be easily colored. No one who has ever seen that face once could possibly fall into any mistake about it. It would be simply impossible to counterfeit it. No, I do not know that any object would have been raised or Schafhirt’s right to do this questioned. The authorities at the museum never knew what was done with the fleshy parts of the body, and it is altogether probable that Schafhirt prepared the head in the manner described, and afterwards, becoming hard up for money, sold it.” Schafhirt left the museum in the spring of 1883, and is now supposed to be living in New Jersey. Cleveland [OH] Leader 22 June 1887: p. 2
Let’s pause for one moment and look at what little I have been able to discover about E.F. Schafhirt. Like his father Frederick, who had been given the courtesy title of “Doctor,” Ernest worked at the museum as a preparer of specimens. The 1870 census describes him, aged 26, as an “anatomist.” He was a Mason at the Grand Lodge of the District of Columbia in the late 1890s.
An article quoting from the New York Sun says that Schafhirt was an expert “in all things relating to embalming.” But then things get a touch shadier. The article goes on to state that several years after Schafhirt’s preservation of the head in the jar, he took it out of the museum, put it in a square box and buried it in a cellar,
“where it remained until some months ago, when it was sold to the parties who now have it Schafhirt, on account of some domestic infelicity or unfaithfulness on his part involving court proceedings, left the city a year or so ago and his friends or family are in ignorance of his whereabouts….Some question has been raised as to whether the present owners have a good title to their ghastly property, but that cannot amount to much, as it would be difficult for the Government to establish property in a cadaver or a functional part thereof. Besides the Government never claimed to own the head…. A price was paid for it, and it is not probable the purchaser would have paid their money for a spurious article, although they have no abstract of title. Cincinnati Commercial Tribune 3 July 1887: p. 2
Generally the law at this time held that a dead body was not property, although I have seen it said that the Rev. Mr. W.W. Hicks, Guiteau’s spiritual advisor, had been willed his body and he was “the legal owner of the cadaver.” [Critic-Record [Washington, DC] 6 July 1882: p. 3] The Rev. Mr. Hicks later sued the Washington Star for saying that he sold the body to the Army Medical Museum.
I’m puzzled by the reference to domestic infelicity or court proceedings of which I can find no traces. Nor can I find that he went to New Jersey, although the census records for 1890 are missing. If he was accurately quoted by that anonymous source about “a government position is not always a certainty, and that the time would come when he could turn those things to account,” one wonders if his superiors were really turning a blind eye to some sort of shady side business and if he thought it might be a good idea to get out of town. However this single article implies skullduggery quite out of keeping with anything else I’ve seen in the historical record. Journalistic drama, perhaps?
Ernest died, aged 58, in 1902 leaving a widow, Mary Catherine and at least four grown sons, several of whom became physicians. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. beside Mary Catherine. I wish I knew more about him so the innuendo in the article could be proved or disputed. More dark doings were hinted at by the next piece.
Prof. Worth, of New York, Has the Head of the Assassin of President Garfield.
Washington, June 20. New York papers state the head of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, which was always supposed to have been buried under the floor of his prison in Washington, has come into the hands of a well-known New Yorker, who intends to place it on exhibition. This New Yorker is said to be Prof. E.M. Worth, a nephew of General Worth, and the latter, according to the same authority, gives the following account of how this head came into his possession: “Prof. Worth says that he first heard of the existence of Guiteau’s head two years ago. He received a letter signed with a fictitious name informing him of the fact and offering to disclose its location. It took him some time to gain the confidence of the writer and learn where the head was concealed. In the meantime he learned that the assassin’s Skelton was on exhibition in the Army Medical Museum at Washington. It was before certain that the body of Guiteau had never been buried, or if it was it had been resurrected. The Professor finally found the head floating in alcohol, contained in a glass jar, in the cellar of one of the finest residences in Washington. It was in a perfect state, except that the jar was so small that the nose was slightly flattened…
Manager George Q. Staff, of the Criterion Theater, Brooklyn, who is acquainted with Prof. Worth and had seen the head, said: “When Prof. Worth assured me that he had the genuine head of Charles J. Guiteau, I could hardly believe it. The Professor is a man whom I have never known to deceive any one. His life has been spent gathering a collection of curiosities such as no man ever owned before…I knew that he had purchased from Guiteau’s family all of his articles that were of public interest. I therefore closed with him at once to exhibit the entire collection. In order to identify the head I obtained the report of the medical examination made on the day of execution. I found that the incision made to remove the brain corresponded exactly. It was a clever operation, the stitches made in replacing the different parts being as neat as if done by a skillful embroiderer. I found the small white scar upon the scalp midway between the top of the left ear and the median lines of the head. There was the yellowish furrow, showing the pressure of the rope, extending three quarters around the neck. It showed that the knot had slipped from the left ear around to the back of the neck. His short hair and mustache were as perfect as in life. Take the photographs made before and after the execution, place them beside his head, and there is no question of its being genuine….Macon [GA] Telegraph 24 June 1887: p. 1
“Fictitious name?” “in the cellar of one of the finest residences in Washington?” This sounds like the patter of a “Professor,” trying to enliven what was probably a more cut-and-dried transaction. “Professor” or “Doctor” E.M. Worth was a noted 19th-century showman who began his career with a Detroit museum in the late 1870s. He created museums like Worth’s Museum and Congress of Living and Inanimate Curiosities, a popular dime museum, which opened in New York in September 1881. Children who brought a live mouse that could be fed to one of his snake exhibits got in free. Otherwise admission was 10 cents a head….
Staff at the Army Medical Museum were at pains to emphasize the historical and educational value of their exhibits in this section from an article called “A Medical Palace.”
Among those to which a sensational and somewhat ghastly interest is attached are the three cervical vertebrae of Wilkes Booth, the assassin, with the accompanying section of spinal cord, preserved as a specimen of gunshot wound; the bones of the arm and throat of Henry Wirtz, of Andersonville memory, with a section of the rope with which he was hanged, and the spleen of Guiteau, abnormally hypertrophied. These are inquired for by some of the visitors, among them, we are sorry to say, women with a curious gusto. It is needless to say they are not preserved to minister to a depraved curiosity. New York [NY] Herald 30 June 1889: p. 9
Of course not. Depraved curiosity could be satisfied quite as well at the Dime Museum.
Among the summer attractions at Brighton Beach, near New York, is the exhibition of Guiteau’s head. Professor E.M. Worth has an interesting collection of curiosities in a spacious room at the extreme east of the pavilion. He has in his collection, and will exhibit from July 1, the head of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield. The head, excepting the skull and brains, will be inclosed in a square glass case set in a round glass case filled with water, and standing on a pedestal. [This pedestal was sized so that the top of the head stood just at the same height as the living Guiteau.]
Professor Worth finds it necessary to use two glass cases in the exhibit. The square case neutralizes the magnifying effects of the round case. Accompanying the exhibition will be several portraits of Guiteau, proving the identity of the exhibit. So says the New York Star. Bar Harbor Mount Desert [ME] Herald July 1, 1887: p. 2
Guiteau’s head, the star item of Worth’s collection, also was part of a touring exhibit:
A Marvelous Collection of Curios—a Monster Devil Fish, the Head of Guiteau, a Transparent Baby and a thousand wonders at W.M.C.A. for a few days only. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fort Wayne [IN] News 30 April 1900: p. 5
In 1907 Worth moved the whole show from New York to Springport, Indiana to be closer to his sister. His Springport Museum attracted thousands of tourists and was dubbed “the million-dollar museum,’ but all good things must come to an end…
HEAD OF GUITEAU BURNS UP
Worth Museum at Springport, Ind., is Destroyed With Thousands of Curios and Relics.
Springport, Ind., Sept. 22. The Worth Museum, valued at thousands of dollars, which for the last nine years has been the Mecca for sightseers and automobile parties from all parts of the United States, was destroyed by fire.
The collection of curios and relics represented the life work of Prof. Edwin M. Worth. The museum formerly was located in New York City. The head of Charles Jules Guiteau, assassin of President Garfield, preserved in alcohol, one of the features of the museum, was destroyed. Indiana Shoals [IN] News 29 September 1916: p. 8
A few artifacts were salvaged from the destruction and Worth planned to rebuilt, but died in 1917, less than a year after the fire. Perhaps it was just as well. It just wouldn’t have been the same museum without the assassin’s head.
Guiteau’s body began its post-mortem career in the fiery vats of the bone-boilers of the United States Army Medical Museum while the pious edified themselves with the thought of his soul seething in the Inferno. There is a certain symmetry that his face also perished in a fire. His bones–skull and all–spleen and brain are still in the collections of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, although not on display.
We are far too civilized for that.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.